News Coverage of Local Politics Is Fading Away


Paul Waldman diverts my attention today to the 2013 edition of Pew’s “State of the Media” report. Pew says that local news is becoming ever more saturated by sports, weather, traffic and “bizarre events.” But the news isn’t all bad:

Crime stories have traditionally been among the largest component of local newscast, but in the two periods studied, there was a marked reduction. In 2005, crime accounted for a full 29% of the newshole. Five years later, that number had fallen to 17%.

As regular readers will immediately figure out, part of the reason for this is that there’s just less crime to report these days. What’s more, as overall crime rates drop, the TV viewing audience is less obsessed with it and less interested in the latest scary stories. So this is all good. But there’s also this:

The same basic trend was seen in coverage of politics and government. In 2005, those topics accounted for 7% of the airtime studied. By 2012/2013, that coverage had been more than halved—to 3% of the airtime. For some time, television consultants have been advising local television stations that viewers aren’t interested in politics and government, and it appears that advice is being taken.

Paul sort of half-heartedly looks for a silver lining here: “I suppose one could argue that what we have here is a salutary specialization. If you want to hear what’s going on in politics, you can turn to cable news, where you’ll get plenty of it, and you can turn to local news for traffic, sports, and weather.”

This would be okay if local newscasts were reducing their coverage of national politics. Cable news can indeed pick up the slack there. But they’re reducing their coverage of local politics, and increasingly so is everyone else. The Boston Phoenix closed up shop last week, part of a trend of community alt-weeklies shutting down. Local radio is mostly just chattering gasbags and syndicated blowhards. Metro dailies have all but abandoned local political coverage of the towns and suburbs that surround their urban core. Here in my neck of the woods, we discovered in 2010 that the city of Bell was enmeshed in a widespread corruption scandal, but since there were literally almost no reporters covering Bell, it went unnoticed for more than a decade.

Now, it’s not as if local TV news ever did a great job of covering local politics. But they did cover it, and so did a lot of other outlets. As all of them slowly but surely abandon it, local leaders remain under the scrutiny of a few activists and news junkies, but not much of anyone else. I don’t think anyone knows what to do about this, but it’s a problem.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.